An interview with Billy Wisse, the editorial producer of Jeopardy!
The entertaining and invariably challenging television show Jeopardy! first aired in 1964 and currently attracts a reported 10 million viewers daily. Librarians can appreciate the enormous amount of reference research required to produce the show and will marvel at the fact that Billy Wisse, the show’s editorial producer, has written 25,000 clues over almost two decades.
Wisse explains, “The audience should react in one of three ways to a clue: ‘Sure, I knew that,’ ‘Darn, I should have known that,’ or ‘I didn’t know that and now I’m glad I do.’” LJ reviewer Donald Altschiller recently interviewed Wisse, the man one former Jeopardy! producer praised as one of the most informed people he has ever known.
If there is a typical work day at Jeopardy!, what is it like?
The writing and research staff (eight writers, six researchers) works in offices all surrounding our 10,000-volume library. Many of the books have been with us for a long time (some even date back to the original version of Jeopardy! that aired on NBC from 1964 – 1974), but we’re constantly adding new titles as well. The annual book-buying spree is not the big event that it was pre-Internet, but we still try to keep our physical library current.
Basically, the writers spend their days creating categories, and the researchers spend their days fact-checking those categories. For every fact in every clue, the writer supplies at least one source, and the researcher makes sure that there are at least two sources for each fact by the time the clue is ready. But we don’t just spend our days working individually. Once a game has been assembled out of categories, it is first read by all of the writers, who meet and make changes; after those revisions, it is read by all the researchers, who do the same. At some point in that process, the game is read and critiqued by Harry Friedman, our executive producer.
In addition to making sure the facts are correct, the research process is concerned with ensuring that each clue is “pinned,” i.e., that there is only one possible correct response that the contestant can give, or that if there are correct alternate responses, we’re prepared to accept them.
This applies to non-tape days. On 46 days a year, we are in production, taping five shows a day. First, five games are randomly picked and ordered from a set of six by an outside company. Alex Trebek reads the games from 7:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. At 9:00 there is a tape-day or production meeting that includes Alex, our executive producer, one of our senior producers, a couple of the writers, and the representative from the aforementioned outside company. That finalizes those games, and we’re in the studio from 11:15 a.m to 4:00 p.m.
Do you use print and electronic resources in your research? And does the staff ever visit libraries to track down print reference sources?
Print titles are used more by the writers in creating clues than by the researchers in fact-checking them. The writers generally still find it more comfortable to explore a topic by browsing a book than by scrolling through a website or hopping from site to site and trying to remember which one had the perfect nugget of information. But for the researchers who already know what particular item they’re trying to track down, or for a writer who thinks, “I heard that somewhere and it would make a great clue,” the Internet is the go-to source.
I look back on being a researcher in the early ’90s, trying to, for example, track down something recently in the news by flipping through two months of Time magazine, and if you had told me then the amount of information that would someday be available with just a few keystrokes, I would have been stunned. Of course even then there were “metasources”—indexed abstracts of current news items and the like. Back then each writer and researcher indeed had a designated weekly “library day” which was spent finding all the bits of information we had been unable to unearth in-house or on the phone. Today there is still the occasional factoid that can only be found at the library, but Google Books especially is making those occasions rarer and rarer. The library today is mainly used by our writers for the “browsing” purposes mentioned above. Ah, a whole book about deep-sea fishing—I can get enough information for a whole category out of this!
Have you had problems verifying information on the Internet? If so, do you have favorite reference sources?
The Jeopardy! writers and researchers are well aware that not all websites are equally reliable (the same is and was true for books, of course). I think I can fairly say that we pay good attention to the quality of our sources. Some of my go-to references, and I believe other writers’ too, are the Encyclopaedia Britannica (I was going to say both print and online versions, but of course shortly there will only be the latter); Oxford University Press reference sources (we currently have a deal with them for online access; you’ll see the Oxford logo in the credits of each show); Nexis newspaper searches; National Geographic’s Atlas of the World ; and Merriam-Webster’s Geographical Dictionary (great for pronunciation especially).
Does the staff have subject specialties?
We pride ourselves on being able to write or research any topic, though of course we have strengths and weaknesses. This particularly applies to math and science—sadly, it seems that the scientifically confident are a minority in society and on our English major–loaded staff as well. So we tend to run science clues past certain people. As a writer, though, dealing with a topic about which one is knowledgeable can be difficult. When I’m writing Shakespeare or baseball clues, I have to be careful not to go for a response that’s familiar to me but that will be too difficult for our contestants and too obscure for our audience. When I’m writing in the area of Chinese geography or computer science, however, I can assume that whatever I’ve heard of, our players and viewers are probably familiar with it, too.
If you later find out that an answer is incorrect, do you mention that on the air?
The only time we make an on-air correction is when our error results in a contestant losing a game he or she had a chance to win, so that we have to bring the player back, which is an approximately once-a-season event. If we are made aware of a mistake the first time a program airs, we’ll fix the clue for reruns.
Some viewers believe the questions are harder on “teacher week.” Are the expectations different then?
The teachers’ tournament is the only one of our tournaments for which we don’t change the material much. For the others (Kids’ Week, Teens, College, Tournament of Champions), we adjust to the age or demonstrated skill of the players. For example, we can’t expect a current teen player, born circa 1995, to know about information that was in the news around the time he was born but that isn’t in history books yet. The knowledge profile of teachers, though, is so similar to that of our regular contestant pool that we really don’t have to do much adjusting.
How many weeks or months in advance do you research topics?
There’s no set lead time. Some categories aren’t time-sensitive. A category about the Hundred Years’ War might sit around for two or three years before it happens to get into a game and go on the air, and be just as fresh (or the opposite) as the day it was written. And we try to air pop culture categories before they go out of date. The lag between taping our shows and airing them varies between one and three months.
When you read for pleasure, do you find yourself wondering whether the information gleaned could be used on the show?
If so, does this trait drive you crazy?
I constantly find items in my reading that might be useful for the show. Aside from the minor annoyance of having to jot the information down or email it to myself, it’s an enjoyable process. What is problematic is that after 22 years of skimming books and articles looking for one nugget that might beuseful,it’s harder for me to read for pure pleasure.
Donald Altschiller, a librarian at Boston University’s Mugar Memorial Library, is a longtime LJ reviewer. His most recent book is Animal-Assisted Therapy (Greenwood).